Me and my mum have developed a small tradition over the last few years of visiting shrines and sites possibly of pagan origin, often purported to have healing properties, the more obscure the better. We both enjoy the comedy and absurdity in these stories, (I am an atheist and mum a pagan), and the way that some quite odd traditions have been appropriated by Christianity. These little pilgrimages into the British countryside have brought us closer together and given us a lot of enjoyment and you never know, some of it might even work.
Below is a picture of me drinking at St Wites well for eye disease. Mum has also taken me to St Catherine’s Chapel in Abbotsbury patron saint of spinsters!
Mum has written the piece below about Saint Styllites in response to this project. What interests me about his story is that for a while no one around him was sure whether his actions were driven by vanity or humility, the local monks reportedly devised a tests to find out which it was. Sometimes, it seems, there is a fine line between the two.
Thinking of Sam staying on Knoydart for a year, I was somehow reminded of Simon Stylites. His story has the quality of myth, but is in facttrue. It seems extraordinary that someone should be considered a saint because he lived on a very small platform on top of a pillar in a desert. It sounds absurd, a weird and incomprehensible form of
behaviour. I am not quite sure why Sam’s year long film project reminds me of Simon Stylites, except that she is staying one place for a while. A year seems a long time to spend in one place. It’s more than I could do. But a year in one place is by no means a record – some people live in the same place for the whole of their lives. At
least Sam is in a very beautiful place with a friendly community. Shecan even take the boat across to Mallaig now and again. It occurred to me that maybe Simon Stylites held the record for staying in one place. There doesn’t seem to be an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for staying in one place, but Simon Stylites still, after 1500 years, holds the record for pole sitting.
Simon Stylites began to attract a lot of visitors when he chained himslf to a large iron ball. He gained a reputation for settling disputes, giving good practical advice and being able to perform miracles. Eventually he began to feel a need to get away from all these people, so he built a small platform on top of an old pillar and lived up there. His first pillar was about four metres high, and had a platform about one metre square. It had a balustrade round it – this is shown in paintings of the time – but no shelter. There was even a ladder for visitors to climb up. Presumably it was removed when he felt that he’d seen enough people. Small boys climbed up carrying goat’s milk and flat bread for him. History does not tell us how his excrement was removed. He soon found that the first pillar was not high enough, and moved to a succession of higher pillars, each with only a small platform. His final pillar was about fifteen metres high.
Luis Buñuel’s film ‘Simon of the Desert’ is loosely based on the life of Simon Stylites. Buñuel’s film is set in the middle-ages, and Buñuel’s Simon seems to have faithfully imitated his predecessor’s religious fetishes in what today would be considered ‘extreme sado-masochistic performance art.’
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